The 1950s’ construction of motherhood was based on deep-seated contradictions, which Beat writers
William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg reflect, as well as contest. While women’s magazines and
Freudian experts posited mothering as the essence of female fulfillment and equated womanhood
with motherhood, medical and moral approaches to the maternal and pregnant body established
maternity as an obscene source of pollution. In this paper, I explore the positive and negative rhetoric
surrounding the concept of motherhood and study the way dominant representations of maternity
are reflected and challenged in Burroughs’ prose and Ginsberg’s poetry.
The years following the end of World War II and the return of the soldiers meant that women who
had started doing “distinctly unfeminine jobs” had to be recuperated back into “femininity” in order
to make their jobs available for the returning soldiers (Halberstam, 588). The cult of femininity that
developed out of this effort enforced an idea of womanhood that was based solely on mothering and
housekeeping. The rise of popularized Freudianism in the late forties meant that women were now
expected to be totally “fulfilled by the role of mothering” and accept it as a natural part of female
psychic development (Walker, 201). As the Freudian childcare experts posited mothering as the
natural fulfillment of female biological destiny, the mother was required more and more to be
completely fulfilled by child rearing and derive pure pleasure out of pleasing her child (Thurer, 256).
For a woman, motherhood was expected to supplant all other identities – except perhaps that of the
Thus, when in 1957, Dr. Spock reserved the male pronoun for the child, insisting he needed “her to
refer to the mother,” he was merely reenacting the common 1950s equation: woman equals mother
(Spock, 1). The “baby boom” meant not only that more women were becoming mothers, but also
that they were having more children or, as Betty Frieden put it, were “making careers out of having
babies” (Frieden, 17). Motherhood itself was posited as unquestionably natural; Dr. Spock asked
women to trust their maternal “instincts”, and movies of the era posited motherhood as “obvious”
and “unquestionable”, thus “natural”: “Everyone has a mother, and furthermore, all mothers are
essentially the same, each possessing the undeniable quality of motherliness” (Doane, 70). Every girl
was expected to “get engaged, get married and have children”; it was even suggested that the federal
government give grants to women for every child borne after her first (Halberstam, 590-6).
The TV sitcoms invariably represented mothers as the source of comfort and as perfect homemakers
who “make things seem not so messy” when things go wrong (512). As both themselves and their
houses were always spotless, tidy and clean, motherhood seemed to signify all that was pleasant and
Under the rhetoric of the natural and immaculate mother created to lure women into “femininity”,
however, lurked general discomfort with the concept of female sexuality, and the medical view that
maternity harbored physical excess and necessitated medicalization. When the Kinsey report on
“Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” appeared in 1953, it caused even more “intense” upheaval
than the controversial report on male sexual behavior, as this time, Kinsey was revealing the sexuality
of “mothers and daughters” (Halberstam, 280). In the era of baby boomers, when women were
pregnant throughout most of their childbearing years, the word “pregnancy” could not be uttered
on TV (200). Thus maternity was treated as obscene, specifically because, in an era when married
couples on TV could not be shown sharing a bed, a pregnancy announced to the world that the
mother had had sex. The idea that mothers could be (even passively) sexual must have been so
threatening that even the original printer of Ginsberg’s “Howl” refused to type cast the line “mother
finally fucked,” and replaced the final word with an ellipsis, while the same verb is peppered
throughout the poem in other verb-noun combinations (19). The constructed mother of the fifties was
a self-effacing Mother Mary figure who raised children, yet was never really “fucked,” and whose
personal satisfaction depended solely on meeting her children’s needs.
The obscenity of mother’s sexuality was not merely ironic but also physically oppressive. The fifties
repulsion in the face of prerequisites to motherhood (copulation and pregnancy) had an acutely
physical effect on mothers whose sexuality came to be viewed as inherently diseased and in need of
medical regulation. Despite the glorification of motherhood as natural, the majority of gynecologists
of the fifties viewed and treated “menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth as illnesses” (Kaledin, 174).
Millions of unnecessary hysterectomies were performed on women as young as twenty, a shocking
eighty percent of ovary removal surgeries of the era were “unjustified” and radical mastectomy was
considered a “standard procedure” (175-6). So while women were being told to reproduce and accept
motherhood as their most natural role, female reproductive processes and organs were seen as
inherently volatile, contaminating and grossly obscene.
Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which itself required a lengthy court case to be cleared of the charges of
obscenity, both reflects and contests the era’s dominant views on motherhood. Its images of
maternity are mostly related to the medical, polluting view, and while it certainly reflects the era’s
repulsion in the face of maternal processes, the book oscillates between enforcement of dominant
patriarchal views and their satirization, identification with the maternal and repulsion in the face of its
fluid volatility. In an especially loaded paragraph, the anti-hero Lee, describes a “maternity case”
with repulsion: “I am passing room 10 they moved me out of yesterday…Maternity case I assume…
Bedpans full of blood and Kotex and nameless female substances, enough to pollute a continent… If
someone comes to visit me in my old room he will think I gave birth to a monster and the State
Department is trying to hush it up…”(Burroughs 57).
According to Lee, “Maternity” as a process creates “nameless female substances” that are inherently
polluting and potent enough to affect a whole “continent.” Although Lee distances himself
immediately from his old room, he still imagines his prior presence and contemplates a scenario in
which a male friend will come to visit him and think he is the one who gave birth. The question, “if
‘they’ hadn’t ‘moved’ a passive Lee out of the room, would those substances be his own fluids?”
remains unasked, although the slight possibility of male maternity is suggested. While maternity
and the fluids associated with it clearly disgust Lee, he is still willing to imagine a situation that
involves a man, himself, experiencing birth and producing the bodily fluids in the process.
Burroughs puts Lee in a situation in which the possibility of him giving birth and becoming a mother
(even if to a monster) is deemed a plausible thought and challenges the era’s strict equation of “her”
with the maternal. Burroughs echoes the medical view of maternity as a contaminating illness in the
character of Benway, who hustles pregnant women in the street for abortions, and in Lee’s nausea in
facing female fluids in his old room. However, by creating a fictional situation in which a male figure
is allowed to peer into a room full of taboo substances and by contemplating male motherhood,
Burroughs simultaneously allows for the incorporation of “female principles in the dominant male
culture” (Kaledin, 22).
If, as Kaledin insists in Mothers and More, the Beats were pushing for a relatively androgynous
society, it means that like Lee, the Beats would have close encounters with maternity and feelings that
fluctuated between socially influenced repulsion and revolutionary identification. Whether or not the
Beats were becoming “more female than male” like some critics exclaimed, Burroughs at least seems
to have the courage to look into “room 10” and imagine a male in it.
Burroughs also challenges the image of the fifties mother as a self-effacing Virgin Mary who seems to
become a mother without conception, by allegorizing the cultural attempt to make mothers “emulate
Virgin Mary” (101). In a sequence, Lee mentions A.J. going to parties and shooting semen under
women’s skirts and impregnating them with other men’s sperm. The fact that A.J. forces maternity
on “career women at parties” reflects the dominant fifties’ idea that women should be only mothers
and homemakers, while the fact that conception happens without sex seems to satirize enforced
Burroughs further challenges the idea of a nonsexual Mother Mary by naming one of the actors in a
porn movie Mary. Mary of the movie bosses the male actor around, calls him “Johnny boy” and
“baby” and insists on washing him, like a competent mother. She also sodomizes him with a rubber
penis that ironically squirts milk (82-3). Wearing slacks and combining an essentially female liquid
with a masculine phallus, Burroughs’ Mary seems to embody what has been called the Beat “drive to
become both sexes” (Kaledin, 23). She, however, also functions as the owner of a volatile and
dangerous female sexuality, which requires sterilization (90-1). Her sexual organ is depicted as
having “vagina teeth” which, in a repulsive mimicking of a medical operation, Johnny removes.
Burroughs once again describes the female fluids with a disgusted distancing, the medical douche
causes a flow of “blood and cysts” and Johnny actually removes a worm into a bottle. However,
when Johnny is absorbed into Mary’s body through her vagina, the register moves away from the
scientific to the spiritual, as Burroughs describes a “warm spring wind,” a “high jungle valley” and
“vines”. Beneath the socially and scientifically induced repulsion hides a possibility of communion
and, at the very least, the acceptance that Mother Mary too has a “cunt” and can have sex. 1
Unlike Burroughs, who merges medical terminology with his narrative voice and embraces the
medical, Ginsberg remains suspicious of the medical field due to his pervasive distrust of
“civilization” and rationality, as well as (I would like to suggest) his own mother’s plight. In “Howl”
Ginsberg blames rationality and mechanical civilization, not motherly contamination, for driving the
best minds of his generation mad (21).
Despite occasionally revealing a reverential sympathy for his mother, Naomi, Ginsberg’s “Howl”
repeatedly avoids any direct empathy or identification with the mother by focusing on Carl Solomon
instead. Ginsberg first identifies with Carl, with phrases such as “while you are not safe I am not
safe” and “we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter,” then forms a mediated equation
between Carl and Naomi with the lines “you imitate the shade of my mother” (24). Not only does
Ginsberg in “Howl” need a safe mask to talk about his mother, he also uses multiple distancing and
mediation while identifying the relationship of that masking figure to his mother. Carl “imitate[s]”
not his mother, but “the shade” of his mother; Ginsberg identifies not with Naomi but with Carl, who
is merely an imitation of a shade. Throughout “Howl,” Ginsberg keeps his distance from the
maternal and cannot utter his mother’s name, making the 1955 poem possibly a manifest content of
what is later revealed as the latent content in the 1958 “Kaddish.”
In “Kaddish,” Ginsberg fully engages the physical volatility of the mothering body, addresses his
mother directly as “you” and identifies with her. The poem hails Naomi from the start, and unlike
the third person narrative voice of “Howl,” it remains deeply personal throughout. Ginsberg tries to
inhabit his mother’s psyche by “looking back on the mind itself that saw and American city” and
acting out her actions by walking a street “[she] walked 50 years ago” (209). He even occasionally
becomes the emphatic mother, staying home to take care of her and holding “her head to [his]
breast” in a radical reversal of the child/mother relationship (212, 222). Although as a child, Allen
mumbles “Trust the Drs”, he blames not female biology but medicalization of the feminine for her
body’s excesses, with the words “metrazol had made her fat” (216-7).
Ginsberg manages to look at and describe the maternal body and “female fluids” without flinching.
He even finds something deeply spiritual in is mother’s volatile body. When Naomi is vomiting,
Ginsberg sees her “croaking up her soul.” When she exposes her grossly unattractive body, Ginsberg
revolts only “little, not much” and wonders whether the act of incest might bring some higher
One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her—flirting to herself at sink…
scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling
down in the fat like thick zippers – ragged long lips between her legs – what, even smell of
asshole? I was cold – later revolted a little, not much–seemed perhaps a good idea
to try–know the Monster of the Beginning Womb – Perhaps–
that way. Would she care? She needs a lover (219).
These stanzas can be read as another moment of peering into Room 10, witnessing a similar bodily
disorder; yet, anticipating not pollution but a profound spiritual enlightenment. Unlike Lee,
Ginsberg engages the medicalized maternity case full on; nothing is “nameless,” in fact everything is
detailed, from the “pancreas” to the “appendix.” Unlike Lee’s quick peek and instant withdrawal,
Ginsberg utilizes most of his senses, including smell and a subjective awareness of being “cold.”
Instead of immediately turning away, he ponders on a possible (re)union with the “beginning womb”
from which he might learn something. The “monster” for Ginsberg is a scary yet mystical experience
he might walk right into, not a vagina dentata to remove, or a deviance to “hush up,” like the
monster baby Lee imagines. The maternal body is abject because of the medical and the rational that
has intruded it with “abortions” and “operations” and sealed it off with “hideous thick zippers” like
an object. Behind its mutilated surface lies unmediated truth.
Ginsberg rejects all dominant constructions of maternity in order to describe Naomi as he sees her.
He lovingly refers to her as “holy mother” without needing to turn her into an asexual Mother Mary
or a repulsive polluting agent that needs medical sterilization (223). He accepts her sexual urges by
stating, “she needs a lover”, and remains proud of his mother’s unfeminine radical politics in an era
that dictated a wholly different kind of motherhood. He describes the maternal body with his
immediate senses without slipping into the era’s rhetoric of contamination and without needing a
male foil as in “Howl.” He empathizes and identifies with his mother by claiming mental instability
(“what mad hallucinations…that drive me out of my own skull”), and most importantly, lets Naomi
speak her own words by quoting directly from her final letter. Instead of enforcing a certain idea of
motherhood, he lets Naomi speak for herself and even signs the poem with her name: “Love, your
mother…which is Naomi –” (224). In “Kaddish,” Ginsberg does what Lee can’t. He manages to
look past the fifties’ constructions of asexual/polluting ‘Marys’ directly into Room 10, and finds not
only Naomi but also himself in it.
1 The use of the word “cunt” as well as naming the porn actress Mary, implies Burrough’s willingness to shock the
contemporary the reader. However, (probably without knowing) Burroughs chose a word that implies a positive idea of
motherhood and matriarchy with its etymological tie to words such as “kin” (See Muscio, Inga’s Cunt: A declaration of
Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press, 1992.
Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York, Norton, 1963.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Press, 2002.
Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard Books, 1991.
Kaledin, Eugenia. Mothers and More: American Women in the 1950s. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
Spock, Benjamin. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare. New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1957.
Thurer, Shari. The Myths of Motherhood. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Walker, Janet. “Hollywood, Freud and the Representation of Women.”, from Home is Where the Heart Is:
Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, edited by Christine Gledhill (London: British Film Institute, 1987).